A man in a protective helmet riding a recreational vehicle among sand dunes.
The Imperial Sand Dunes in California.  (BLM)

America’s Backyard:  The Growth of Outdoor Recreation on BLM Lands

By Bob Ratcliffe and David O. Howell

Just a few decades ago, BLM public lands were truly the lands that no one knew—few people were aware of what they offered and they were only occasionally visited by the recreating public.  Today BLM lands are widely recognized as some of the most outstanding and unique places for outdoor recreation and special events.  BLM lands have become the popular backyard for many in the fast-growing West.  Between 1990 and 2010, the nation’s population grew by about 24 percent.  Eleven of the 20 states with the fastest population growth were in the West where BLM public lands abound.  As a result, the number of visitors to BLM public lands has doubled in the past two decades—to nearly 60 million visitors in 2011.

While population and economic shifts resulted in considerable changes in the West, advances in technology, more than any other factor, changed the face of BLM recreation forever. Over the past 20 years, technology has given the nation unprecedented flexibility for people to choose where and how they live—and when, where, and how they play.  Consider that during this period, society saw the rise of the World Wide Web and a corresponding growth in flexible work schedules and workplaces, allowing people and businesses to work anywhere.  Many people chose the high quality of life and nearby outdoor recreation amenities offered by hundreds of communities across the West.  BLM lands and the recreation that occurs on them are now critical to the health of many local and regional economies.

From GORE-TEX to geospatial technologies, mountain bikes to rock-climbing gear, whitewater rafts and kayaks to off-highway vehicles and ultralight aircraft—technology created a whole new generation of outdoor recreation activities.  BLM lands offer the perfect places and settings for a wide range of new and popular pursuits and also offer millions of acres of wide-open spaces, mountains, canyons, and rivers for more traditional recreation such as hunting, fishing, hiking, and camping.

The BLM offers unique and incredible landforms, vast and diverse geographic features, and a management mission that can accommodate many uses and events that cannot occur in other places or on other public lands.  The BLM’s Black Rock Desert Playa is home to the now iconic cultural event, Burning Man, a weeklong festival for art and self-expression enjoyed by 50,000 people each year.  The spectacular Imperial Sand Dunes—some of the largest sand dunes in the world—are visited by up to a quarter of a million people each winter holiday weekend for dune riding and thrill seeking.  BLM is also home for tens of thousands of “snowbirds” each winter who enjoy public lands as an affordable retirement living alternative.  BLM is the place for a new generation of recreation activities such as rock crawling, river sledging, dune buggy riding, dogsledding, snowmobiling, mountain biking, rocket launching, land sailing, canyoneering, geocaching, speed-trial racing, and many, many more.

The BLM also offers millions of acres of protected areas and wilderness for more self-reliant and human-powered activities.  The Bureau manages thousands of miles of long-distance national scenic, historic, and recreation trails, scenic byways, and wild and scenic rivers that have increased in popularity and visitation.  More than any other federal land management agency, the BLM allows visitors the freedom to explore and discover, on their own, incredible places such as world-class cultural sites and ancient ruins, ghost towns, historic ranches, lighthouses, high alpine mountains and glaciers, vast desert landscapes, narrow slot canyons, old-growth forests, and remote ocean coasts.  The BLM issues special recreation permits for events, such as the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, Oregon Trail wagon train, and Pony Express reenactments, that celebrate cultural heritage through recreation and can only be found on BLM-administered lands.  Our unique lands and mission provide a greater diversity of outdoor recreation opportunities than any other public land agency.

The BLM now faces a world very different than the one it faced in 1976 when the Federal Land Policy and Management Act was passed.  While recreation was recognized as one of the key resource uses of the public lands, few could have imagined then the depth, breadth, and diversity of recreation occurring today on BLM’s public lands.

Bob Ratcliffe is the former deputy assistant director for renewable resources and planning in BLM's Washington Office.  Prior to that, he was the division chief and deputy division chief for recreation and visitor services.  Bob has also worked with the BLM in Colorado, Idaho, and Oregon in the recreation, wilderness, watershed, and public affairs programs, and as a field office manager.

David O. Howell is BLM’s deputy division chief for recreation and visitor services. He has also been a program analyst in the Washington Office Division of Budget and a public affairs specialist and resource coordinator in the Idaho Falls District.